Dress to impress

Many TV property shows urge sellers to paint everything cream and clear their homes of clutter. But does 'house doctoring' add value? It's not that simple, says Gwenda Brophy
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The Independent Online

Spring has sprung. Buds are bursting, birds are singing and homo sapiens is preparing for the seasonal migration - moving house. This year I am part of it, and schooled in basic, if not advanced, house doctoring methods (I watched the TV programme a couple of times), I have repainted the sitting room in Natural Calico (cream), the hall in Meringue (cream) and the wooden kitchen units with the rather silly New Age name of Relax (cream).

Spring has sprung. Buds are bursting, birds are singing and homo sapiens is preparing for the seasonal migration - moving house. This year I am part of it, and schooled in basic, if not advanced, house doctoring methods (I watched the TV programme a couple of times), I have repainted the sitting room in Natural Calico (cream), the hall in Meringue (cream) and the wooden kitchen units with the rather silly New Age name of Relax (cream).

But this was just the start. There was still the clearing, sorting and, to use the jargon, the "room dressing" - a Heal's fruit bowl here, an artfully draped curtain there. A boot scraper at the front door complete with green wellies (unworn since moving to the country), and a charming vignette of French country style in the conservatory: pale mint wood-slat chair, battered straw hat and glossy magazine. Of course, this is not real life. But when, after all my efforts, the estate agent valued my house at barely more than in its non-doctored state, it was certainly a reality check.

House doctoring makes good television, if only so we can smugly watch people who need to be told their 12 slobbering Dobermans, dangling live electric wires in the hall, and used cat-tray on the kitchen worktop might have been putting off buyers. For most property owners, the reasons for house doctoring (and the finished product) are less straightforward.

Giles Newby has more than 20 years' experience as an estate agent, and has also started a business as a house doctor. Yet he too is unconvinced by the over-simplistic formula suggested by the programmes. "If a house isn't selling, it is important to identify the real reason," he says. "It might be presentation, or because all the original features have been ripped out, or it could be simply wrong marketing."

That does not stop many people throwing money at their property, often to ill effect. "People do so because they want to add value to what they see as their main investment," says Newby who is often asked for advice by owners planning to spend large sums on major building works, or in one case after they had spent £100,000 on the garden - "it was £75,000 too much".

"You need to be sure any spending will reap a dividend. One client wanted to spend £8,000 replacing his gravel drive with brick paving. I said it was money down the drain: most people prefer gravel, not least for its security aspect. Instead I told him to add good-quality brick pillars (no stone lions), and good-quality wrought-iron gates. It gave the property genuine kerb appeal."

One thing a house doctor can do is point out areas for easy improvement that we often do not spot ourselves. "Cheap or unattractive doors make a big difference because they are everywhere in the house, but many owners stop noticing them," Newby says. William Wells of Essex and Suffolk agents Mullucks Wells agrees that a fresh pair of eyes will spot problem items. "People leave extra heaters out - the message is 'you can never get this house warm'," he points out.

Where there are real structural problems to address, the quick-fix form of house doctoring will simply backfire, says Tim Lawson of Property Pathfinders in Gloucestershire. "As a search consultant acting for the buyer, this would only alert me to look more closely," he says. "But if the house doctoring entails work done well, it will pay benefits."

For those whose property is basically sound, there is a school of thought that says leave well alone. Serena Brown of agents Browns in Cranleigh, Surrey warns against sprucing up only one room: "It will make the rest look shabby by comparison."

Meanwhile, my personal house-doctoring may not have been totally in vain. "A new coat of paint will lead buyers to believe that a house has been well-maintained," says Ian Tong of Tong and Co Property Services in Stockport, Cheshire. "House doctoring does not necessarily add value to a property, but it should make a house more attractive to potential buyers. This should shorten the length of time the property is on the market, and so make the process less stressful." Sounds just the tonic.

Giles Newby at House Doctor Plus, (from £395 for a three-bedroom house), 01753 882522, www.housedoctorplus.co.uk

Property Pathfinder, 01285 653190

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